Shaw 'Nuff

After viewing the current New Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw's Bonaparte: Man of Destiny, I was instantly reminded of a recent dinner conversation with a colleague on this paper. He commented that regrettably, there remain few good Shavian actors. I agreed, but added that Shaw would prove a challenge even to the bravest modern thespian. His subtle, stinging wit disguising complex philosophies and expounding revolutionary political ideals - such as sexual equality and the hypocrisies of privilege - make for wordy tomes that can seem devoid of effective action.

But New Theatre bravely tackles the Master and emerges victorious, proving that local talent is capable of rising even to a rigorous occasion. This outing uncovers the constant comic excitement of Shaw, which emerges from brilliant dialogue and multilayered confrontations between quasimythical characters. With Coconut Grove Playhouse-keteers pandering to the "talent" of Pia Zadora, it's a comfort to know that, less than ten minutes down the road, artistic director Rafael de Acha bravely reintroduces a classic playwright with ideas relevant to contemporary problems.

One wonders how the arch Shaw - already impatient with democracy and mankind in the Nineteenth Century - would view the current election buffoonery. What a play lies in that fanciful concept! For enough cannot be said here about this brazen, sometimes bullying genius who authored such classics as Saint Joan, Pygmalion, Major Barbara, and Androcles and the Lion. He originated concepts that became part of the world's vocabulary: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches," "England is a nation of shopkeepers" (an actual line from Bonaparte), and the whole idea of middle class morality (also inBonaparte). Shaw was playwright, prophet, comic satirist, subversive, and critic (although some people feel the last two terms are synonymous). As a critic (of theater, literature, and music), he proved merciless, adding salt to the wounds he inflicted by flatly stating that theater held no enchantment for him and if he hadn't been paid to criticize, he never would have visited a playhouse.

And if you think I sometimes stray toward cruelty, check out Shaw reviewing Herbert Tree as Falstaff in 1896 - "Mr. Tree wants one thing to make him an excellent Falstaff, and that is to get born over again as unlike himself as possible... Mr. Tree might as well try to play Juliet."

Shaw went on to prove that those who teach can also sometimes do (a sentiment dear to my heart), around the turn of the century when he turned from reviewer to reviewee. Bonaparte, a brisk one-act effort produced in 1897, was his seventh play, and a resounding success. The plot doesn't offer much. Blustery little General Bonaparte, resting at an Italian inn during the Battle of Lodi, encounters a mysterious woman who first steals his incoming letters (one of which contains a humiliating note from Bonaparte's wife to her lover), then tries to trick and undermine him in various ways. The glory of the piece stems from scathing interchanges and coy commentary about society, sexuality, human neuroses, and power struggles.

But first, a Shavian warning: the chuckles connect only if you listen closely, to lightning-like quips and acute observations tossed off almost as second thoughts. At one point, Giuseppe, the innkeeper, responding to Bonaparte's orders, tells him not to worry. "I grovel," he reminds the tiny terror. The General muses over "the efficacy of firing cannons at people," and proudly justifies that "loot is the natural right of a soldier." When Napoleon comments that his hapless, upper-crust lieutenant says everything wrong, Giuseppe advises him to make the idiot a general. "Then everything he says will be right." Hey Ross, Bill, and George - whaddaya think?

Doing a fine job of keeping the Shavian ball in the air at a pleasant and believable pace, Andrew Noble shows himself as a director not lacking in theatrical knowledge. The set design by Stuart Brown (clever use of New Theatre's small space) actually adds to the mood by bringing the audience into the tavern. Costumes by Svetlana Yanovsky are the best example of non-chintzy period pieces.

The great director Sir Peter Hall once dismissed a work of Shaw's - Pygmalion - as "romance with no balls"; other theatrical greats accused the writer of sexlessness. Why? Because he portrayed women not as purely romantic objects but as heroines, even with mixed gender traits. As the mysterious lady, Holly Iglesias - although sometimes a bit too understated - communicates this perfect androgynous quality of seductive courage, endowing complex lines with a strong, modern reality. Roger Martin and Pepe Serventi make effective comical bookends as the innkeeper and the lieutenant respectively, providing dedicated energy without once going over the top. Finally, Greg Schroeder nicely slimes through Bonaparte, as a soft sadist with much insecurity. His one bad habit is gritting his teeth too much when anger overtakes him, but he also sprinkles some surprising charm into the character.

If Shaw represents the playwright as a man of words constituting action, then the opening entry of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, Julio Matas's stunning, arousing El Extravio (Deviations) - the world premiere that opened the event - represents the playwright as a man of dance, action, music, lights, heat, and fury, almost intruded upon by words. Although the English translation lacked the poetry and atmospheric dialogue demanded by the piece, it still managed to fully engage the audience. Matas, born in Cuba, educated at Harvard, now professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, takes blindingly bold chances with this modern re-telling of the Minotaur myth. In his version, two spinster sisters - one a blond Jezebel in potentia, the other a plain-looking but powerful romantic - receive (literally) their father's charming guest at a remote mansion in Cuba, during the 1920s. But the stranger emerges as more lethal than anyone suspects, and a tragedy of ancient Greek proportions naturally results. Told through flashbacks, thundering drums backing erotic dance/drama sequences, and surreal staging, El Extravio challenges every physical and emotional sense.

As the sisters, Rosie Inguanzo as Lucila projects volcanic appeal, and totally bilingual actress Evelyn Perez commands respect and pity as the dutiful but wise Aurora. El Extravio may return to our area after the festival - one reason I'm recommending it. Another motive is to direct even non-Spanish speakers to the following week of plays. Though the dialogue may remain a mystery, the explosive, energetic meaning cuts through nonetheless. (Next week, reviews of festival highlights constitute this column.)

At one point in Bonaparte, the General and his female tormentor sit by a stark wooden table almost touching, breathless as they watch a small fire burn. During El Extravio, hungry Aurora sits atop a saddle and softly asks her male visitor, "Do you like to ride?" From London to Havana, authors of such subtle flames conjure only on a live stage, which is why, unlike Shaw, I love the job.


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